#18 The Lost (and Found) Art of Wandering

In the age of the all-knowing, all-encompassing guidebook-style travels, most of us seem to think that we have the world below our feet. Line up your leave dates, now with your credit card in hand, you soon have your ticket booked, then bags are packed and you’re ready to rock and roll. The world’s completely in our control because we know the best places to see and eat at, the most exciting things to do, the latest travel trends to keep up with. But do we really KNOW?

Indeed, when most of us, including myself, start planning a trip, we have a go-to mental list inside our heads.

1. Decide what kind of vacation it would be.

If it’s going to be sultry one, most likely you will be on a sunny island, or a lovely beach sipping maitais in your swimsuit. You will be packing light, including the latest summery read. You start to worry if your tummy is flat enough to be beach-worthy. If it’s going to involve shedding serious calories (snowboarding, rock climbing), we’ll reach for our trusty gear list and amp up our workouts at the gym. In any case, you already know what to prepare yourself for, and will likely only plan and pack specifically for that.

2. Google and ogle. Repeat.

So you have decided for a rustic countryside/beach getaway. Go to Google search engine and type in, for example, “Liguria” since you’ve heard your colleagues gush about the place. (Okay, even the geographer in me admits that I don’t know where this is.) In an instance, drool-worthy pictures of the azure Mediterranean set against a backdrop of tightly packed earth-toned cottages perching on dramatic rock cliffs began unfolding before your eyes.

Not quite up to your fancy? Go look at Google Maps, zoom in on an area and start scouring away.

The less adventurous or the nostalgic ones amongst us would google places they would like to revisit, just to check if there are any new museum or restaurant openings, or if there are any festivals at that time of the year.

3. Decided on a place? Book your ticket and pick your guidebook poison!

Which guidebook/online guide should you consult? Nobody can say for sure which is the best but the usual suspects that most people use are Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor, Fodor’s, Frommers, DK, Footprint, Rough Guides, Let’s Go, Time Out etc…

Personally, I don’t like to buy them because they go out of date within a year’s time. I go to the library and flip through a few and make my own notes in my notebook. Sometimes I even photocopy the itineraries and maps of the city walks and tours because I figure that the tried and tested will help me get the most out of a limited amount of time. (Who wants to get lost, right??)

I also make it a point to bookmark some interesting travel articles I’ve read online (the Travel section on the New York Times and the Telegraph UK are particularly good, to me at least). I don’t feel safe if I don’t do copious amounts of research on a particular location. I will even go to the extent of memorizing subway lines, though usually, to no avail.

4. “Design” your itinerary.

I say “design”, because most of us just list down all the must see attractions in order of their preference, grouped them by geographical proximity, and there you have it. Battle plan on hand, you gather your travel comrades or just your backpack (for those going solo) and attack the places with a ferocity that until recent times only nomadic warriors possess. I know, I am guilty of doing this. A lot.

I “only” managed to go up the Tour Eiffel, be enchanted by the beauty of Sacre Coeur & Montmartre, ooh-and-aahed at La Joconde (or the Mona Lisa) at Musée du Louvre, traipsed down Avenue des Champs-Elysées, ate macarons at Ladurée, window-shopped at Boulevard Haussman and strolled along the Seine in two days in Paris. I still felt like I should have had the time to see Musée d’Orsay, Centre Pompidou and Jardin du Luxembourg. Talk about over-achieving.

From the moment you hit the streets at your vacay destination, you begin to meticulously check off every item on the list, even if it meant that you have to rush through lunch at a well known restaurant (Of course, you had to go, it has millions of reviews!) just to make it for the afternoon tour at a museum. The next day, you decided to be very ambitious indeed and squeeze in a half-day historical district tour, attend a lunchtime mass at a cathedral, and later an aquarium and then the famous fountain/statue and the chocolate factory and the…and the…

I have seen and met loads of people, the most common culprits being year gappers and fresh graduates on a continental tour, who zipped their way through twenty cities in two months. There are also people who only managed to wrangle 10 days of vacation leave from their horrible bosses and tried to fit a tour of four major Italian cities into their itinerary. What do you get at the end of the day? Photos of your youthful self posing with a silly grin in front of all 70 Wonders of the World (not to mention the one with you propping up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, eh eh!) but no memory of exactly how the place meant to you because you were really overwhelmed from running to catch the train to the next town.

I try not to judge these people here — I say that, but I’m still  looking at them… Honestly, I am guilty of trying to do too much in too little time, too. I kept thinking that I should at least see all the “Starred” items in the guidebook, or at least the Top 10 Must See Attractions… But I also have a list of things that aren’t necessarily must see, but of personal interest, like the cheese-making factory, or the eclectic novelty store in the bohemian district. When you add all these up, suddenly a ten day trip is packed with things that even locals take a whole year’s time to fully appreciate, let alone savour at a leisurely pace.

Sometime in the middle of my trip with Oliv to Amsterdam last year, I vowed to change this. I told myself to just take it easy and see whatever I want to see, and leave the rest to the next visit in the future (which I’m sure will come around soon enough).  Even though I was still struggling, albeit much less, with the itinerary, I felt more at ease, focusing more on taking in the sights and sounds, letting things flow the way they should, instead of grumbling about how slow public transport is (what’s the hurry anyway) and whether I could fit in a quick 30-minute zip through a museum before closing time.

I allowed myself to wander. Well, I tried, I was learning, and I still am. In Amsterdam, my favourite memories were when we sat by the side of a canal, enjoying the late April sunshine on our faces and watching boats go by, and weaving in and out of the many winding narrow alleys and streets. On my latest trip to New York, I was truly at peace with myself strolling in a off-the-tourist-trail park along the Hudson River and observing the squirrels scurrying from tree to tree.

When I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, I felt like I am one step closer to the art of wandering. Perhaps, I was blessed by the golden touch of a master wanderer. Or, a true master in wandering. ♥


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